Concours d’Arrogance: America’s premier celebration of the lifestyle that’s destroying the planet.
My great-grandfather, Alec Eells, was a San Francisco attorney in the 1890’s. That is, his office was in San Francisco. His actual business was all over the state. He needed to be in Sacramento one day, Santa Barbara the next, then back to San Francisco for an early court session, etc. I know this because he kept a careful diary.
Just like lawyers of today, he never knew how long he might be stuck in court or how long his other business might take. But, unlike today, this did not create scheduling difficulties. He would take all the time he needed to conclude his business, then stroll down to the station and simply board the next train heading in the direction he needed to go.
If he was going to a larger town or city, as he usually was, he could get on a car destined to be uncoupled and left beside the platform at his destination. That way, if the train arrived in the early hours, he could continue to sleep undisturbed, wake up at his leisure, wash, dress, and then step straight out into the downtown of his destination city fully rested and ready for work.
That he could get from almost any major California town to any other, overnight, while asleep in bed, without having to plan the time of his departure in advance, was completely unremarkable to him. His idea of a travel headache was arriving at the station too late to get a bunk on the bottom tier. The upper tier swayed more, making it harder to sleep soundly.
Alec Eells lived long enough to see cars become a common sight on California roads and he was not impressed. He thought them unlikely to ever replace the horse and buggy. If someone had told him cars would do not only that, but also eliminate the entire transportation system that made his lifestyle possible, he would not have believed it. If someone had told him that 120 years in the future the only truly feasible way to get from one city to another overnight without advance scheduling would be to give up sleep and drive in a car, he would have been incredulous.
It’s a fact. Travel in California was actually easier, more practical, and more convenient, 120 years ago. Thanks, cars.
Car Week on Ocean Avenue, Carmel
Alec Eells was hopelessly old-fashioned. Americans today, as everyone knows, have a love affair with the automobile. A love so passionate that, abandoning all rational thought, we demand an entirely car-centric transportation system. We don’t care if that means a transportation system inferior by any measure to that enjoyed by our ancestors. We don’t care if it means a previously unheard of level of carnage, with better than 30,000 killed each year, and who knows how many injured and maimed. We don’t care about the environmental and human health toll of auto emissions. We don’t care if those unable to drive are left stranded. We don’t care about the crippling expense that purchasing and maintaining cars entails and the huge burden that places on the poor. We don’t care about the loss of habitat and ecosystem connectivity created by an ever-expanding road system. We don’t even appear to care, as yet anyway, that the burning of fossil fuels is rapidly leading the planet toward disaster on an apocalyptic scale.
As the staggering cost becomes more difficult to ignore, this apparently all-consuming love begins to look less like unbridled passion and more like extreme denial; an increasingly desperate refusal to let go of a toxic relationship.
Think I’m exaggerating? Come to the Monterey Peninsula during Car Week. Come early, though, as the most notable feature of this celebration of all things car is, appropriately enough, complete gridlock.
Sitting in gridlock gives Car Week attendees, together with any locals who couldn’t get out of work, a chance to reflect on the excitement and personal freedom a car-centered life makes possible.
Car Week began as a Pebble Beach get together for well-heeled classic car enthusiasts. But as the event has metastasized and spread over the years it has steadily become less and less about classic design and more and more about ostentatious displays of wealth and power. Each year the number of older classic cars in town diminishes. And for every funky Studebaker Hawk and regal Buick Roadmaster that disappears, at least five more late-model Ferraris arrive.
This isn’t a good thing.
Remember that kid in Junior High who read comic books and spent all his time drawing the most preposterously “bad-ass” cars his imagination was capable of conceiving? Well, these are those cars come to life.
Some years ago, I was driving home from town during car week. Shortly after turning onto the Cachagua Rd. a Ferrari came raging around the bend fully on my side of the road and headed straight toward me. I yanked my wheel to the right, taking myself completely off the pavement and into the dirt. The Ferrari shot by honking its horn. The driver flipped me off. Less than a minute later it happened again. When the third Ferrari in less than a mile ran me off the road, I heard the driver shout, “You’re driving the wrong way!”
That’s when it dawned on me. These people simply assumed that because their Ferrari club had decided to sponsor a drive on my road, I should know about it and I should consider my road to be one-way in their direction for the duration of the event.
On another occasion, a friend was driving home with his wife and young daughters along the twisty section of the Carmel Valley Rd. east of the Village. A Ferrari zoomed up from behind and passed on a blind turn. A half a mile later, he spotted the Ferrari down the embankment and lying on its side in Tularcitos Creek. He stopped, got out, and saw the driver pulling himself out of the wreckage.
“Are you OK?” he shouted down at him.
“I think so,” responded the driver.
“Well, fuck you then.” And he got back in his truck and drove on home.
These incidents pretty much sum up the way people in upper Carmel Valley and Big Sur experience Car Week. To rural residents, Car Week is simply a mass invasion of generally unskilled drivers who treat the roads we use to carry out the business of our personal lives as their personal playground and racetrack, and whose recklessness is only matched by their arrogance.
Back in town, the massive crowds and gridlocked roads leave many people feeling like prisoners in their own homes. And for every business that makes a killing off the Car Week crowds, there’s another that suffers. Some simply close for the day or the week.
Getting the picture?
As the emphasis of Car Week shifts from automotive history to conspicuous consumption, the faces in the crowd change as well. The aging hot-rodders talking about restoring those old Cameros in their backyards, and the blazer wearing Brits swapping stories about the time they saw Jackie Stewart race the Monaco Grand Prix, have been replaced by a crowd more interested in the cost of a car than in its history. For many of today’s spectators, the real allure lies in the chance to be, if only for a moment, in the presence of the extremely rich; a group which is, needless to say, revered as highly and worshiped as grovelingly as any noble caste in history.
While the rich who enjoy the opportunity to bask in this adulation represent, obviously, only a small, and especially crass, subset of the wealthy, there are still a lot more of them than you might expect.
In a ritual that continues into the early morning each night of Car Week, these wealthy arrested development cases parade their Ferraris and Lamborghinis up and down Carmel’s Ocean Avenue in a sort of sclerotic homage to American Graffiti. To the delight of screaming fans, they rev their engines to ground-shaking levels, squeal their tires, and unleash monumental eruptions of backfiring. If you don’t think these displays reek of upper class privilege, consider for a moment that the only place in town that caters to young people of average means isn’t allowed to have live folk music after 9:00 pm because it might be barely audible from the sidewalk and someone might be disturbed.
Night on Ocean Avenue
Maturity is often defined as the ability to delay gratification; to take the long view, face hard facts, and do what is truly in our best interest, rather than what seems most pleasurable at the moment. Perhaps these modern day Neros simply aren’t going to grow up. Perhaps they will continue to fiddle with their cars until the fire consuming the planet consumes them as well. But do they have to do it here?
In the meantime, I’m going to try not to think about the kind of transportation system we might have today if we’d built on the world of Alec Eells instead of sacrificing it to the automobile.
Car buffs enjoy record breaking heat as they view the cars along Ocean Ave. Thanks, in large part, to cars, record breaking heat is no longer anything out of the ordinary.
Hosting an event that more than doubles the population of the Monterey Peninsula for a week probably isn’t going to help convince the State Water Resources Control Board that we’re serious about saving water.
Children trying to figure out what it is about this thing that makes it more valuable than their future.